[Viewpoint] Taking a different view of China

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[Viewpoint] Taking a different view of China

Hi-ho. Another day, another appeal by a senior American official (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Ambassador Kathleen Stephens, or someone else) to China to put the squeeze on North Korea so we can all get out of this crisis.

As a patriotic American, I am a little chagrined to see my government try to buck the problem to China. It underscores American powerlessness to deal with this pipsqueak Pyongyang regime. Hey, China, it’s your backyard. Clean it up for us, will you?

But China itself is powerless against the pipsqueak - or so it says. Our leverage is limited, they say. The North Koreans don’t listen to our advice, they say.

It’s all probably true. Nobody can do anything about pipsqueak North Korea.

“We,” the Americans and South Koreans, could defeat them on the battlefield, but at the cost of turning Seoul into a “sea of fire.” No thanks.

The Chinese could cut off food and fuel deliveries to North Korea and perhaps destabilize the regime so that it collapsed, flooded northeast China with refugees, and deprived Beijing of a buffer against American interests in Northeast Asia. Do you wonder why China says no thanks?

Still, in the wake of Pyongyang’s latest provocations, the development of a uranium-enrichment program that offers a second path to a nuclear bomb, and the lethal bombardment of a South Korean island, things feel different.

First, South Koreans have been shaken out of the delusion that North Koreans are merely wayward brothers, no serious threat except to the Kospi, the stock market. In other words, it is now understood that not only the wallets but the existence of South Koreans is at stake. What about Wednesday’s civil defense drill? When was the last time anyone took such a thing seriously?

Second, unification is suddenly discussed as a present possibility, not a distant dream. “Unification is drawing near,” President Lee Myung-bak said the other day. Even if this is merely a politician’s rhetorical blather, it contrasts strikingly with what President Kim Dae-jung used to say, that unification must be deferred for 10, even 20, years until the two Koreas had overcome disparities of economic welfare and psychological animus.

And third, one senses in the Seoul press a rising distrust of China. In the early years of this decade, story after story in this newspaper and others suggested that China was supplanting the United States as the most influential outside player on the Korean Peninsula.

South Korean trade was swinging toward China; so was investment. More young Koreans were studying Chinese and enrolling in Chinese universities, with a corresponding decline in English studies and American enrollments. Polls recorded South Koreans as increasingly respectful of China and dismissive of the United States.

The statistics on trade, investment, language and university studies may have continued to follow those trends - I don’t have the numbers - but there is a clear shift in underlying sentiment.

In 2002, Roh Moo-hyun won a presidential election by pledging not to “kowtow” to the United States. Now President Lee bases his policy on strengthening the South Korean-U.S. alliance.

Meanwhile, read what Korean pundits have been writing:

“China has given the appearance of participating in international efforts to prevent North Korea’s nuclear development program. But in the meantime, it gave support to North Korea’s nuclear program by providing grain, oil and other materials that the North needs, despite violating UN resolutions that imposed sanctions on the North.” (“China is North Korea’s Enabler,” Korea JoongAng Daily, Dec. 2, by Park Sung-soo)

“Arrogant and hard to communicate with is how Korea’s vice foreign minister allegedly described his Chinese counterpart at the six-party talks. This is also more or less the way ordinary Koreans are beginning to see China after the country’s ambivalent attitude toward the current inter-Korean conflict.” (“China Skepticism Spreads by Leaps and Bounds,” Korea Times, Dec. 2, by Cho Jin-seo.)

Perhaps this shift is a pendulum swing that may be reversed before long. Moreover, it is not entirely a product of North Korea’s provocations. China is also resented by Koreans for its perceived attempts to appropriate chunks of Korean cultural history.

But North Korea’s provocations furnish the context of the South Korean reassessment of China. And that is why it is still true that China holds the key to the further development (or deterioration) of the aggravated situation on the Korean Peninsula.

It is a curious fact that as tensions rise on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea’s strategic value to China increases. But is this pattern immutable?

Diplomats talk of the “red line,” the limit that, if crossed, will trigger consequences. Part of the problem the United States, South Korea, Japan and other countries have had with North Korea arguably has been a failure to specify a precise red line.

It was not kidnapping Japanese civilians. It was not attacking South Korean fishing boats or even sinking a South Korean submarine. It was not violating repeated agreements to give up its nuclear-weapons program.

So where is the red line? Since any consequences Seoul and Washington could inflict on Pyongyang are either ineffective (economic sanctions) or terrifying (military force), the red line has remained a fuzzy, brickish blur. Perhaps that is changing.

China may have its own red line. It wants to maintain its influence in the region and that means remaining North Korea’s lifeline. But at some point might North Korea miscalculate its strategic usefulness to Beijing?

Where is China’s red line?

*The writer is the former chief editor of the Korea JoongAng Daily.

By Harold Piper
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